V for Vagina: How well do you know this extraordinary part of the female anatomy?


Vagina Anatomy

The vagina is an elastic and muscular canal (with soft, flexible lining) that connects the uterus to the vulva.  Its main function is to receive the male sex organ (the penis) during sexual intercourse. It also serves as a passage for the flow of menstrual blood. During delivery, the baby also passes through the vagina.

The external part of the vagina is known as the vulva, which contains the external genital organs including

Mons pubis: This is a rounded mound of fatty tissue that encloses the pubic bone. Mons pubis contains glands that secrete pheromones.

Labia majora: These are the external lips (folds of tissue) of the vulva that are large and fleshy. Its function is to protect the other external sex organs. They contain glands which secrete lubricating fluids during intercourse.

Labia minora: These are the internal lips of the vulva that lie just beneath the labia majora. During sexual stimulation, the labia minora fills up with blood and swells, making it more sensitive.

Bartholin glands: These are two pea-sized glands located slightly posterior and to the left and right of the opening of the vagina.  These glands secrete a thick liquid that lubricates the vagina during sexual intercourse.

Clitoris: The clitoris is a small organ that is present at the top of the vulva. The clitoris, that is equivalent to the penis, becomes erect during sexual stimulation. Women usually experience orgasms when the clitoris is stimulated.

Different types of vulvas

Vulvas come in various shapes, sizes, and colors. How a vulva looks like generally depends on the position, shape, and size of the labia majora. Vulvas can be put under specific categories based on certain characteristics. Some of the most common types of vulvas are

Vulvas with asymmetrical inner lips

This is a type of vulva where one portion of the inner lips (labia minora) is not in symmetry with the other (one side usually hangs past the labia majora). It is a very common type of vulva.

Vulvas with curved outer lips

This is a type of vulva where the front portion of the labia minora is exposed due to the labia majora curing around in the shape of a horseshoe.

Vulvas with prominent outer lips

In this type of vulvas, the labia majora is very thick and prominent. In such cases, the outer lips tend to sit much lower. They can also look full or puffy.

Vulvas with prominent inner lips

This is believed to be the most common type of vulva. In this type, the labia minora is longer than the labia majora. Due to the difference in length, the labia minora tend to extend below the labia majora.

Vulvas with small, closed lips

This is the least common type of vulva, where the labia minora is completed hidden beneath the labia majora. This is the most desired vulva due to it being portrayed a lot in the pornographic industry.

Vulvas with small, open lips

This type of vagina is very similar to the one with closed lips. However, in this type of vulva, the vaginas are set further apart, exposing a little bit of the labia minora.

Vulvas with visible inner lips

In this type of vulva, the inner lips are visible due to the outer lips being open. The labia minora is usually visible through the entire length of the labia majora.

What is the labia’s usual length?

Although the length of the labia can vary from woman to woman, research has shown that

  • The labia majora (both) may be up to 12 centimeters (5 inches) long.
  • The left labia minora may be 10 centimeters (about 4 inches) long
  • The right labia minora is up to 10 centimeters (about 4 inches) long

Vagina Facts

  • Some women are born with hymens (a thin membrane covering the opening of the vagina).
  • Having sex does not stretch out the vagina
  • The muscles of the vagina can be strengthened with exercise
  • The vagina is self-cleaning
  • Vagina odors can change many times in a month
  • The clitoris is more sensitive than a penis
  • The vagina changes in size and shape during sexual arousal
  • Many women don’t get an orgasm during vaginal penetration
  • What you eat can affect the vagina odor
  • The vagina is tilted at roughly a 130-degree angle
  • Vaginas sometimes tear during childbirth
  • Some women have two vaginas
  • The vagina always has a little bit of yeast in it
  • The walls of the vagina are pleated

Why vulvas are darker compared to the rest of the body?

The sex organs in both males and females are a bit darker compared to the rest of the body.  Although the exact reason for this is not known there are several theories

  • One theory states that the pubic region is usually darker due to it being in constant friction. Since the genital region experiences a lot of friction, it may make itself thicker to protect itself. This is partly reflected in the color
  • According to another theory, the pubic area being dark was a natural defense mechanism when humans did not wear clothes. Since the skin around the pubic region is sensitive, making it darker would have protected it from the sun and its harmful rays when humans were naked. This is also the reason why we have pubic hair.
  • The darkening of the pubic region could be due to hormones during puberty. This is because sex hormones (estrogen and testosterone) regulate melanocytes that produce melanin cells.

Vulva Disorders

Several different types of infections and disorders can affect the vulva. Some of the most common ones are

Folliculitis

This is a condition that is characterized by small, red and sometimes painful bumps on the labia majora, where hair grows. Folliculitis is caused by bacteria that infect hair follicles. The infection happens due to shaving, waxing or skin irritation due to friction. Although it usually goes away by itself, you can speed up the process by wearing loose clothes and improving hygiene.

Contact dermatitis

This is a condition that is characterized by symptoms such as extreme itching, rawness, stinging, burning, and pain. This happens when the vulva is irritated by soaps, perfumes or fabric. Treatment generally includes stopping the use of the irritant. You can also apply some plain petroleum jelly to reduce irritation.

Bartholin gland cyst

This happens when the Bartholin gland gets blocked, leading to the formation of a cyst near the opening of the vagina. These cysts are generally not painful unless they’re infected. If the cyst is not infected then it can be treated by applying a warm compress to the affected area. However, if it is infected and an abscess (a painful collection of pus) has formed, you need to see a doctor, who will drain the cyst using a needle.

Lichen simplex chronicus

Lichen simplex chronicus is a condition that is characterized by thickened, scaly areas on the vulvar skin. These causes cause intense itching. Lichen simplex chronicus may result of contact dermatitis or other skin disorder that has been present for a long time. Treatment involves the use of steroid creams to stop the itching.

Lichen sclerosus

Lichen sclerosus is a skin condition that makes the vulvar skin appear thin, white, and crinkled. This can cause itching, burning, and pain during sex. The exact cause of this condition is unknown but it is believed an overactive immune system or an imbalance of hormone may be responsible. Postmenopausal women are at a higher risk of developing Lichen sclerosus. Lichen sclerosus is also treated by steroid creams.

Lichen planus

This is a skin disorder that usually affects the mucous membranes of the mouth. However, sometimes it also affects the skin of the genitals. Symptoms include itching, soreness, burning and abnormal discharge from the vagina. Lichen planus may also cause white streaks on the vulvar skin. Although there is no cure for this condition, symptoms can be controlled by medicated creams or ointments, vaginal tablets, prescription pills or injections.

Vulvar Intraepithelial Neoplasia

This condition is characterized by the development of benign neoplasia (abnormal growth of tissue) on the vulva. Some of the symptoms include itching, burning, or abnormal skin that may be bumpy, smooth, or a different color. Treatments for this condition include creams, laser treatment, or surgery.

Genital herpes

This is a sexually transmitted disease that is caused by the herpes simplex virus. Genital herpes can cause pain, itching, and sores in your vulva.  However, sometimes you may not have any symptoms. This is no cure for this STD but certain medications can help reduce the symptoms and stop it from being contagious.

Yeast infection

These are very common in women, with 3 out of 4 women getting this at least once in their lifetime. This infection occurs when Candida, a fungus that normally works with other microorganisms in harmony, begins to over multiply and invades the vaginal tissue. The most common symptoms include itching, vaginal discharge, burning in vagina, pain, and inflammation. This condition can be treated by applying antifungal ointments or taking an antifungal drug. Ointments are generally preferred as they act quickly compared to oral drugs.

Misconceptions about vulvas

Despite the overall understanding of the human body improving, there are still many misconceptions. It is no different when it comes to vulvas

Vulvas are diverse

This is a common misconception as people feel all vulvas should look similar. This is mostly due to the pornography industry, which gives people wrong ideas about how a vulva should look like. But what people don’t understand is that porn can be misleading.

Losing your virginity means your hymen should pop

This is another widely spread misconception where people believe the hymen is an indicator of a virgin woman. The hymen can rupture even if you are not involved in any sexual activity (including masturbation). You can simply rupture your hymen by exercising, running or playing sports.

Pubic Hair should be removed to maintain hygiene

The pornography industry is again to blame for this one as it has spread another lie by displaying only shaved genitals. Contrary to popular belief, pubic hair actually has a lot of hygiene benefits, like keeping harmful pathogens out of your vagina. Furthermore, pubic hair also improves a woman’s sex life as pubic hair heightens sexual sensitivity.

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